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Roy Hodgson’s starting XI against Italy – combinations and permutations

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In the weathered hands of England manager Roy Hodgson rests a seemingly infinite number of combinations and permutations from which to pluck a starting XI for the World Cup opener against Italy on Saturday.

Attack is where the discrepancy lives. Joe Hart will start in goal, Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Glen Johnson will be the starting back four, and Steven Gerrard has locked down one of the central midfield spots.

That much we know. But from there on forward, things get sticky.

The general issue is whether Hodgson will go aggressive and deploy a diamond midfield behind two strikers or whether he’ll opt for the balance of a 4-2-3-1, utilizing two holding players behind three attacking midfielders and a lone striker. But formation is only one component of Hodgson’s prescription. A considerably larger concern is one of personnel and with a number of talented young stallions at his disposal, the England manager has some very difficult decisions to make.

So let’s take a look at a few different setups Hodgson has available to roll out against the Azzurri.

THE TASTE OF LIVERPOOL

The most talked about formation for England, the 4-4-2 diamond midfield, happens to be the same shape Liverpool used to claim second place in the past season’s Premier League. Brendan Rodgers perfected this setup with a rotating group of midfielders but always present in the bunch was Gerrard, at the fulcrum, and Raheem Sterling, in any one of the three advanced roles. Proving himself capable of opening defenses up from the left or right side, Sterling’s game rose to a new level late in the season when Rodgers inserted him into the center of the pitch where his quickness and evasive nature proved too much for stiff-legged central defenders.

source: Getty Images
Adam Lallana looks poised to exchange his Southampton shirt for a Liverpool kit.

Another key to the diamond midfield is balance, which is achieved through utilizing fit outside midfielders who have no issue playing both sides of the ball. And there’s no better man for that job than Jordan Henderson, who makes 90 minutes of sprinting look like a walk in the park.

A fellow Liverpool player, Henderson has an intimate understanding of Gerrard and Sterling as well as how to correctly use the diamond shape to his advantage. Henderson’s ability to drop deep, at times even alongside Gerrard, allows Hodgson to select a fourth member of the midfield with slightly more aggressive tendencies.

And who better for that role than Adam Lallana, the $34-42M transfer target of Liverpool, who looks primed to join the Reds by the end of July? The 26-year-old excelled on the left side for Southampton this past year, is not opposed to running himself ragged for 70 odd minutes and provides devastating trickery to compliment that of Sterling.

Opting for a four man midfield with Liverpool connections may feel biased but it’s a proven commodity that sparks goals. Factor in the Daniel Sturridge connection up top and this feels like a balanced yet aggressive lineup for Hodgson to utilize in the event he truly desires to take the game to Italy.

THE (ROONEY-LESS?) YOUTH BLITZ

If Hodgson really wants to throw a curveball at Italy he’ll unleash the youth, likely in a 4-2-3-1, which provides a bit more protection than the diamond. The youth setup would partner 22-year-old Jack Wilshere alongside Gerrard in what would be a clever pivot. Wilshere’s love for the tackle compliments that of Gerrard while the Arsenal man’s knack for creating off-the-dribble would provide a key link between the attacking midfielders and the striker.

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Many pundits feel Wayne Rooney’s starting spot could be in jeopardy. Will Hodgson pull the plug?

In front of Gerrard and Wilshere would be 19-year-old Sterling on the left wing, 20-year-old Ross Barkley in the central attacking role and, ideally, 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. The obvious issue currently facing this system is that Oxlade-Chamberlain is nursing a knee issue that may keep him out against Italy. While his speed and two directional play would devastate and provide balance to this shape he’d be well deputized by Henderson or Danny Welbeck, who would then swap sides with Sterling.

One downside of a youth blitz in a 4-2-3-1 is that Wayne Rooney may be the odd man out. It’s a predicament many pundits believe Hodgson may be inclined to move forward with given the United man’s sub-par Premier League season and poor World Cup history. That said, charging forward without Rooney in the starting lineup feels like a titanic miss and one that Hodgson would be wise to avoid risking. Instead, Hodgson could push forward with a youth blitz and Rooney, who could partner with Sturridge in front of a diamond midfield made up of Gerrard, Sterling, Barkley and Ox/Henderson/Welbeck/Wilshere.

Regardless of using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond, the key to the youth blitz would be giving England fans that which they fiend for the most: Sterling alongside Barkley in what would be a freakishly athletic, skillful and audacious pair that few opposing defenses, including the Italians, would be equipped to handle.

THE RUNNING MAN

As we know by now, heat and humidity will play a large role in this World Cup meaning many a match will come down to a battle of the fittest. And no venue will provide a greater challenge of the conditions than the sweltering jungle of Manaus, where England faces Italy. To hedge against those conditions, don’t be surprised if Hodgson opts for an attacking group of running men, which means James Milner becomes a real possibility to start.

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James Milner’s third lung may be enough to get him into Roy Hodgson’s starting XI.

The City man is as fit as the come. Inserting him on the right side along with Gerrard in the fulcrum, the inexhaustible Henderson on the left, and Sterling at the point of a diamond midfield could prove a very wise play.

If Hodgson opts for a 4-2-3-1, Rooney could drop into the attacking midfield role, Sterling to the bench and Wilshere alongside Gerrard.

It’s a lineup that would allow England to put Italy under pressure and bring veteran leadership into the side. While not the most exciting play, Milner’s work rate could break down Italy’s left side for a sub like Sterling or Oxlade-Chamberlain to then capitalize.

THE OLD GUARD

The most conservative and downright uninspiring attack Hodgson could play would be to pair Gerrard with Milner and Frank Lampard.

source: Getty Images
Frank Lampard can play a role for England in the World Cup, hopefully just not as a starter.

Whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 and regardless of who is played on the left side, such a lineup would reek of a lack of ambition and spell doom for England.

Fortunately, while such a makeup could have been foreseeable under Fabio Capello’s tenure as manager, it seems unlikely that Hodgson would revert to such a level of conservative tactics. There is a freshness about this England squad that is just begging to be unleashed on the world.

What better stage to make it happen than to kickoff Brazil 2014?

 

 

 

UCL AT HALF: Man City, Celtic in thriller; Walcott driving Arsenal

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  David Silva of Manchester City runs with the ball uner pressure from Nir Bitton of Celtic during the UEFA Champions League group C match between Celtic FC and Manchester City FC at Celtic Park on September 28, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
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The goals have been flying in around Europe, as the UEFA Champions League treks on through the group stage with an octet of Wednesday games.

[ LIVE: UCL scores ]

Celtic 2-2 Manchester City

The Scots have opened up a pair of leads through Moussa Dembele‘s third-minute redirection of a Erik Sviatchenko attempt and a Raheem Sterling own goal, but Fernandinho has one for City and Sterling made amends with a goal of his own to level things in a thriller at Celtic Park.

Arsenal 2-0 Basel

A Theo Walcott brace has the Gunners rolling at the Emirates in a match which pits Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka against older brother Taulant Xhaka.

Borussia Monchengladbach 1-0 Barcelona

Well, well, well… the middle Hazard brother, Thorgan, had staked the German hosts to a 1-0 lead over Lionel Messi-less Barcelona with his 34th minute tally.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Bayern Munich

Yannick Carrasco has the hosts up at the Vicente Calderon, on a nice shot to boot.

Elsewhere
Ludogorets Razgrad 1-1 PSG — Matuidi nabs equalizer
Napoli 1-0 Benfica — Hamsik scores for hosts
Besiktas 1-0 Dynamo Kyiv — Quaresma the scorer
FC Rostov 2-2 PSV Eindhoven — Two for Dmitri Poloz

LIVE, UCL group stage: Celtic-Man City, Arsenal-Basel, Atletico-Bayern

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City is congratulated by Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester City FC and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Etihad Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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We have another packed slate of UEFA Champions League action on Wednesday as Groups A through D are in action across Europe.

[ LIVE: UCL scores ]

Manchester City head to Celtic and Pep Guardiola‘s boy can expect a cauldron of noise at Celtic Park, while Arsenal host Basel at the Emirates. Elsewhere a mouthwatering clashing takes place in the Spanish capital where Atletico Madrid host German giants Bayern Munich.

City will be hoping to avoid an upset ahead of their next two UCL games against Pep’s old side, Barcelona, while Arsene Wenger will look to build on Arsenal’s solid draw away at PSG in their Group A opener two weeks ago.

All matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET, and you can follow all the action live as it happens by clicking on the link above.

Wednesday UCL schedule

Celtic vs. Manchester City
Arsenal vs. Basel
Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern Munich
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Barcelona
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Napoli vs. Benfica
Besiktas vs. Dynamo Kyiv
FC Rostov vs. PSV Eindhoven

Men In Blazers podcast: Arsene Wenger on 20 years at Arsenal

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Roger Bennett
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Rog talks with Arsene Wenger about his 20 years as manager of Arsenal Football Club, the Premier League’s changing landscape, and what motivates him to continue.

Rog’s film, “Inside the Mind of Arsene Wenger,” airs on NBCSN Saturday, Oct. 1 at 12:30 p.m. ET.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Vieira embracing life in New York City as NYCFC continue to flourish

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Patrick Vieira is making the most of life in New York City as he team continue to become a major player in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Latest MLS news ]

Born in Dakar, Senegal, Vieira explores New York in his spare time and often visits Harlem to eat in authentic African restaurants as he enjoys the rich cultural offerings of the Big Apple.

In his debut season as a head coach at the senior level, Vieria, 40, has already enjoyed plenty of success, leading New York City FC to the playoffs in Major League Soccer in just their second season as a franchise. His star is rising as a coach.

With impressive performances on the pitch from star names Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, plus youngsters Jack Harrison, Khiry Shelton and Steven Mendoza emerging, all is well at Yankee Stadium as Vieira and NYCFC prepare for the postseason.

Speaking exclusively to ProSoccerTalk from a community event to promote healthy eating among children in Harlem, which Vieira attended alongside NYCFC’s Sporting Director Claudio Reyna, defender Jason Hernandez and Lampard, the former French national team captain revealed just how much importance he places on his team being an integral part of the NYC community.

“It is really important for us because we have some responsibility in the community as well,” Vieira said. “These kids are New York City FC fans and to get the chance to meet some of the players, to come to this event, it is really important and we know that New York is a big city with the five boroughs so it is important for the supporters to be involved in all of the five boroughs.”

As a second-year team, NYCFC has continued its impressive attendance records in MLS with an average crowd of over 26,000 in the Bronx making them the fourth best supported team in the league. They are always trying to find new ways to connect with the vibrant community they’ve only recently become a huge part of.

Speaking passionately about how he wants his team to not only win games but represent NYC in an authentic manner through their play on the pitch, it is clear Vieira feels at home in the hustle and bustle of the USA’s largest city.

“That is the aim. That is what we try to do, to represent New York City. I strongly believe that the city is really dynamic city, 24 hours a day there is something to do and this is how we want to represent the city,” Vieira said. “We want to be really offensive, really dynamic and play with a lot of energy. Of course it is not going to be easy but we need to find a way to do it because we want to represent the city.”

But how exactly does that mantra manifest itself on the pitch in their style of play?

“It is about attacking football, an attacking way of playing, it is scoring goals and I think at times we have done it quite while,” Vieira admitted. “It is also to play with a lot of energy, passion and for the players to give 100 percent. You can win the game, you can lose the game… but what is important is that when the players are on the field, they give everything.”

The pace and passion with which Vieira talks represents the city too. It is full of life and fast.

Vieira was speaking from Ginny’s Supper Club, located in Harlem, as esteemed chef Marcus Samuelsson hosted a “Healthy Hat Trick Cooking Class” for kids from East Harlem’s Lexington Academy. The aim of the event was to teach the children how to cook healthy meals for themselves and Vieira was enthused to connect with a future generation of NYCFC supporters.

“I believe we are in one of the most important places in New York, in Harlem. It is a really authentic place with authentic restaurants and authentic chef, one of the biggest chefs in the world. When you know his story to get to where he is now, for myself and the football club to be here is really important,” Vieira said. “When you look at the kids who are here, they love the game, of course, but I think it is important to explain to them that it is not only football. You can be a chef like Marcus who has been really successful and the interaction between the players, Marcus and the kids has been really good.”

Of course, the main reason Vieira is in New York is to continue his coaching education after excelling as a the leading man for Manchester City’s development squad from 2011-15. The former Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan and Man City midfielder who won the World Cup and European Championships with France is quietly going about his job and is not losing any focus on why he’s taken on a completely new challenge in MLS.

With a steely focus, he is eager to continue to get better each and every day.

“I’m visiting different places [in NYC] but I am here because of my job,” Vieira said. “My number one priority is to do well with the team and to be a better coach every single day. When I have a day off there is a few places I go to visit and of course Harlem is one of them. But I know why I am in New York. It is my priority to be a better coach.”

From the coaching side of things, his opening season in MLS couldn’t have been much better. Sure there’s been some speed bumps along the way but despite making the playoffs by beating the Chicago Fire last Friday in front of their home fans at Yankee Stadium and currently tied for first place in the Eastern Conference, Vieira wants more. Much more.

“We are in a really good period. We had some ups and downs during the season but to qualify for the playoffs was just a small step to what we want to do as a football club. We want to be successful. We want to win silverware. Of course being in the playoffs is a step up but it is just a small one compared to what we want to achieve.”

With New York City FC the top goalscorers in MLS with 55 through 31 regular season games, going into the pivotal final few matches of the regular season with the Conference title on the line, plus with the playoffs lurking, Vieira wants his side to stay true to their playing style despite some criticism about their defensive play this season.

Will the pressure situation of playoff soccer impact that outlook at all?

“What is important is to believe in ourselves. We managed to play some games really well to get to the playoffs but the playoffs is of course, win and you keep going, lose and you’re out. I want us to really focus on what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the season,” Vieira said. “I think we’ve had a clear philosophy of how we want to play and we have to stick to that philosophy and not try to do something that we didn’t try already and which didn’t work. I think our togetherness has helped us to be there and we just have to believe in that.”

Veterans Lampard, Villa and Pirlo will play a key role in the postseason and Vieira is counting on them to led the team.

“They have a lot of experience on the field and off the field, so that’s why they will help and be really important in the playoff time,” Vieira added. “I am really quite pleased because I have a really good mix between young players and experienced players and I think if we manage that well, we will give ourselves some more chances.”

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: David Villa #7 of New York City FC celebrates his first half goal with teamate Andrea Pirlo #21 againd the Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

In his debut season in MLS, there’s been widespread chatter about how impressive Vieira has seamlessly handled the challenge of moving to a new country, plus coaching in a new league while he is still developing himself as a coach.

When it comes to what Vieira expected of MLS, he has been pleasant surprised be all that he’s experienced in NYC, so far.

“I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived but I am happily surprised because there are a lot of good players, it is really competitive and the atmosphere in the stadiums is really good. I have really enjoyed my experiences, so far.”